Looking at employer feedback, one of the skills that they value highly is writing. This is for an obvious requirement in journalism, public relations, and other writerly practices, but it is also a highly valued skill for designers, advertisers, scientists, and even engineers. Being able to communicate clearly and in a focused manner is important to all professions in our information age.
To that end, here is a must-reads list of on writing. I have kept the list to 3, but there are many more. If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White. This is a most useful and very important of all the must-reads. At its core, it is a style guide – a writing manual. But it offers a world where clarity of communication is revered and brandisments of language are scorned. There are criticisms of its prescriptive and traditional approach to writing, but its better to master the fundamentals before ornamentals.
“It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.”
- Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (link to text). This was an essay that Orwell wrote in 1946 as he felt ‘that the English language is in a bad way’. To him, the work needed to develop the ability to communicate leads to clear thinking and both are vital to the political process.
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
He writes that poor writing suffers from ‘staleness of imagery’ and the ‘lack of precision’ that particularly manifest themselves in four bad habits – dying metaphors, operators, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. He provides us with 6 rules that we can use to counter these bad habits.
i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Importantly for Orwell, we must remember that ‘language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought’.
- How to Write with Style by Kurt Vonnegut. While this two-page article is perhaps intended for creative writers, as opposed to learners, the rules Vonnegut sets out, I believe, are about writing well and clearly. As he say, “I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.”
1. Find a Subject You Care About
2. Do Not Ramble, Though
3. Keep It Simple
4. Have the Guts to Cut
5. Sound like Yourself
6. Say What You Mean to Say
7. Pity the Readers
8. For Really Detailed Advice
His rules focus on the clarity and authenticity of the writers voice, which is the foundation of writing that communicates well, and to the intention of the writer.
Honourable Mention: Ten rules for writing fiction by various (part one, part two). Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, the Guardian asked other authors for their rules of writing. This is worth a read.